Image from "And The Pursuit of Happiness" by Maira Kalman.

Maira Kalman: The Pursuit of Happiness

Maira Kalman’s illustrations give the impression of someone as alive to the wonders and amusements of the world as a small child. It’s no surprise then that she’s written and illustrated 12 children’s books. But you needn’t be a parent to know her work. Kalman has produced two much-loved visual blogs for the New York Times, illustrated many a New Yorker cover, designed the blue sky umbrella sold by the Museum of Modern Art, and illustrated Strunk & White’s classic text, The Elements of Style.
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alman describes her approach as journalistic, and it’s easy to see a natural inquisitiveness underlying her work. One gets the impression that she is constantly roaming the streets for visual stimulation, chatting up a waitress at an out-of-the-way diner, exploring a new installation at a library or museum. When I call her to chat, she is true to form: Kalman is visiting the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, where she tucks into a stairwell to speak about her transition (or expansion) from writer to artist, believing in the worth of your work, and finding your calling in the most seemingly insignificant pleasures.

Do you have a daily routine?

Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind. There’s a lot of walking in the morning, and coffee, and reading the obituaries. And by that time, I’m probably ready to start working. And also a deadline is a really good thing. A deadline is probably the biggest inspiration to get going – more than anything else.

What is it about the obituaries?

This week there was an obituary about the man [Curtis Allina] who developed the Pez dispenser. It was an incredible obituary because he was raised in Vienna, lost his entire family at Auschwitz, and came to America and worked for this company that made peppermints, which is what Pez is short for. He did something that was considered completely trivial, which was designing and marketing Pez dispensers. But I think the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble. So it gives you a nice beginning to the day.

Storytelling seems to be central to all of your illustrations.

I think everything I do is narrative, but it’s not just a story, it’s a movie – a movie of my life. And usually I’m trying to put too much information in one image. But because I thought that I would be a writer, and that’s how I started out – as a writer and not as an artist – then when I decided to start drawing, it was going to be narrative. It’s things that are from my life, and things I’ve seen, and things I’ve seen in books. It’s always telling stories.

How did you come to be an artist rather than a writer?

I was sick of my writing and thought it was absolutely terrible. And figured that it must be easier to draw than to write. So that’s what I did. I started drawing. I was about 22.

Did the drawings come easily at first?

Well, what’s interesting is I approached it from the perspective of the naïve artist who just does what they need to do, and love to do. Of course, I was also exposed to art: I had a lot of friends who were painters, and I went to a high school for arts and music – and that was very much a vocabulary in my life. I saw the world of cartoons and new-wave illustration at the time, and had the sense that there was a way to tell a story with art, and that I didn’t have to have studied art to do it. So I just plunged in, and I thought I was allowed to.

I was sick of my writing and figured that it must be easier to draw than to write.

Why did you choose the topic of American Democracy for your “Pursuit of Happiness” project?

I got tired of writing about myself. I felt that I had done enough about my life, and I wanted to do something that took me out of my own sphere and into something I knew nothing about, which was American history and politics. Because Obama had been elected president and it was a whole new era, there was an interest in how our country could be and the freshness of the inspiration.

How much does curiosity and the desire to learn play into your work?

As an illustrator and a writer, I’m in a sense a journalist. And my work is about reporting to you what I see and what I’m thinking and what other people are thinking.

So being curious is a completely natural part of it, and being a busybody, and wanting to know what people are doing, and why, and how it works. And why are you wearing those shoes? And what’s that hole puncher for? The nature of curiosity is both about how people live their lives and about the bigger picture of how the world works.

As an artist, I’m reporting the big things and the small things. And sometimes you don’t know which is which.

Do you have a particular painting technique?

I love going to arts supply stores. There’s nothing more fun than buying paint, and brushes, and paper, and then going home and taking it all out. I use a lot of reference: photographs (both that I take, and photographs from other sources), and just a million different objects and images – and sketches from my sketchbook. And then I put them together in a way that starts to make sense.

As an artist, I’m reporting the big things and the small things. And sometimes you don’t know which is which.

You’re at a museum now. Do you have a sketchbook?

I always have a sketchbook with me. I started these sketchbooks in 1969, and I have all of them. There was more sort of cultured writing when I was young, and now it’s drawings and ideas and design and things. But I go through a sketchbook probably every two months.

Do you know how many you have?

Probably around 50 or 60. Maybe more. There were fewer in the beginning. Now I’m drawing more and more and more.

What’s the biggest challenge of the creative process for you?

The desire to do something really wonderful, and the worry that it’s really awful – and  how to rebound from those two situations. I think the most difficult thing is looking at your work and understanding what to edit, and what not to do. I mean there are a million decisions you have to make, and I guess, in the end, one hopes to not be boring. That would horrify me until the end of time if I thought my work was boring.

You also have to have perseverance – and maybe that’s the hardest thing, to persevere and to believe that what you’re doing is worth doing – and to do it, rather than talking about doing it.

Do you have any particular tips you give your students at the School of Visual Arts?

Well, I tell them that you have to maintain a sense of humor in your observations, and try to incorporate that into your work. But I think that what’s more important is that you should look at your work as an extension of the most natural part of you. As opposed to trying to be an artist or a designer, and trying to impose on yourself whatever that definition may be. To really find out what makes you happy, and really pursue that in an active way – because that’s going to give you the answer to a lot of the questions.

I guess it’s trying to eliminate an affectation, or an assumption, or a program, and trying to be who you are. Which is very hard to do, it takes many years actually. I tell them to look for the smallest, most insignificant part of themselves that gives them pleasure, and that will give them the clues into what means something.

What would that thing be in you?

I’d say walking and looking – and trying to edit things down to the most personal level.

Maira Kalman’s “And the Pursuit of Happiness” is now available as a book. Purchase here

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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